Once again, a youth sporting event provides the context for a Maryland legal opinion with potentially wide-ranging ramifications. At issue is the contributory negligence defense, which continues to apply in Maryland, making Maryland one of only a few states that still recognizes this common law doctrine.
The plaintiff in the case was an experienced soccer player, 20 years old at the time, who had volunteered to assist coaching a youth soccer team in Howard County. During a practice, while retrieving a ball from the back of the goal, he jumped up and grabbed the crossbar for no apparent reason. The goal was not anchored to the ground and as a result, the assistant coach fell backwards while pulling the crossbar down onto his face. He suffered multiple severe facial fractures, requiring surgery that included the insertion of three titanium plates in his face. He filed suit against various defendants, alleging that his injuries were the result of their negligence. The only defendant that remained in the case by the time of trial, the Soccer Association of Columbia, asserted the defense of contributory negligence.
Under the contributory negligence doctrine, a plaintiff who fails to exercise ordinary care for his or her own safety, thereby contributing directly to his or her injury, is barred from recovery, regardless of the extent to which the defendant is primarily negligent. At trial, the parties disputed whether the association owed a duty to inspect or anchor the goal, which depended to some degree on whether the association owned or supplied the goal – and the association contended it did neither – or whether the goal was located in an area under the league’s supervision and control, thus triggering such a duty.
The plaintiff offered testimony that players commonly hang from soccer goals, and that anchoring goals is standard safety practice in youth soccer. His lawyers argued that his actions should have been anticipated by the defendant. The soccer association contended that the condition of the goal was open and obvious to all persons, and that the accident was caused solely by the assistant coach’s negligence.
The jury found that the soccer association was negligent, and that its negligence caused the plaintiff’s injuries. However, the jury also found that the plaintiff was negligent, and that his negligence contributed to his own injuries and thus, under Maryland law, his contributory negligence barred him from any recovery.
On appeal, the soccer coach asked the court to abolish contributory negligence as the common law standard governing negligence cases in Maryland. As he had also done at trial, the coach urged the court to adopt some form of comparative negligence. In general, comparative negligence reduces proportionately a plaintiff’s damages in relation to his or her degree of fault; it permits a plaintiff to recover whereas the contributory negligence rule completely bars a plaintiff from recovering, no matter how slight his or her contributing fault may have been. Thus, taking an extreme example, a plaintiff who is injured by another’s negligence but is deemed to be 1% at fault for his own injuries, may nevertheless recover up to 99% of his damages under a comparative negligence standard. The same plaintiff would recover nothing if contributory negligence applies, even if the defendant is 99% at fault. The frequently harsh consequence of the contributory negligence rule is the chief reason that many wish to do away with it, and why its continued application in Maryland is a recurring issue.
Maryland’s trial and appellate courts frequently consider the policies and parameters of the contributory negligence defense; however, it had been some 30 years since the Court of Appeals, Maryland’s highest court, last addressed the issue in such a comprehensive fashion. In its opinion, the court traced the origins of the contributory negligence doctrine in the U.S. back to the industrial revolution, noting the concerns raised then that large plaintiff verdicts could stifle newly developing industries. Evolving factors – including related and corollary doctrines in the areas of tort, negligence and strict liability law – have played a role, as has a strong insurance/tort defense lobby, in retaining the doctrine of contributory negligence in Maryland, making our state one of only five jurisdictions in the country that still follows this common law rule.
One issue the Court grappled with was whether it was imbued with the power to change or do away with the rule, or if that was a job for the legislature. The Court noted that in the past 50 years, the Maryland General Assembly had considered some thirty bills seeking to change the contributory negligence standard, not one of which had been enacted. Ultimately, the Court concluded that it did indeed have the authority to change the common law rule of contributory negligence. However, it declined to do so because it viewed the Maryland General Assembly’s repeated failure to pass legislation repealing the defense as very strong evidence that the legislative policy in Maryland is to retain the principle of contributory negligence.
Although contributory negligence is most closely associated with motor vehicle accidents and other personal injury cases (such as falling soccer goals), it can also be raised as a defense in cases involving business transactions where a party alleges damages resulting from someone’s fraud or negligence. It remains to be seen whether the Maryland legislature or judiciary will ultimately abolish the law, but one thing is certain: the debate will continue.
For more information please contact Jason Brino at 410-583-2400 or firstname.lastname@example.org.